The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cong bid to steal Left thunder

New Delhi, Aug. 2: The ruling Congress today offered to bring a statutory resolution in Parliament to take any decision on privatising navratnas ' nine large, successful public sector firms ' out of government hands.

After a heated debate in Parliament initiated by the CPI, which attacked a proposal to sell government stake in Bhel, a navratna, Congress spokesperson on economic issues Jairam Ramesh said: “We are ready to go the whole hog on not allowing privatisation (of navratnas) under any circumstances.”

The Congress could, he said, bring a resolution “making it impossible for any future government to privatise the nine companies without parliamentary approval”.

Although most analysts saw the statement as acceptance of Left demands on halting divestment, it also reflected a view often voiced by Congress leaders during the BJP regime: that privatisation should be effected only after parliamentary approval.

The divestment from Bhel does not imply privatisation but sale of equity on the market, nor has the current government brought any privatisation proposal yet.

By taking the initiative, the Congress may be sending the message that the Left is not the sole defender of the public sector, as it is making out to be.

Ramesh sidestepped the thorny issue of whether stake sale in navratnas or other profitable PSUs will continue.

Finance minister P. Chidambaram earlier in the day iterated in Parliament that a decision on divestment from Bhel had been put on hold because of objections from labour unions and “others”.

But Chidambaram made it clear that minority sale of the government’s shareholding in profitable PSUs ' while retaining majority ownership and management control ' is within the guidelines of the common minimum programme.

The finance minister protested that the proposal to divest 10 per cent stake from Bhel through the market was “good economics”.

“Monetising a part of ownership at an appropriate time and price is good economics. There can be an opposite point of view. But I would not agree that it is bad economics,” he said, responding to a calling attention motion tabled by CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta.

His junior minister, S.S. Palanimanickam, has already told Parliament the government has decided “to list currently unlisted, profitable PSUs, each with a net worth of more than Rs 200 crore, and sell minority shareholding of the government in listed profitable PSUs”.

Dasgupta’s motion attacking the government was supported by the CPM.

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